Belgium

Belgium

image: canal waysBelgium is a culturally diverse nation with three spoken languages. Its capital Brussels, with its fascinating architecture, is home to the European Union headquarters, has more restaurants than Paris, and enough chocolate shops to induce a cholesterol attack. And the second cities, Antwerp and Ghent, warrant more than just a weekend away. The Ardennes is a peaceful, historic region whose forested hills act as a buffer between Belgium and Luxembourg and it is the place for outdoor activities in Belgium.

When to go

All these nations enjoy cool, temperate weather with mild summers and cool winters and rainy variations throughout the year – particularly in the Netherlands. Summer temperatures average 77°F while winters average 45°F. Summer extremes can reach 90°F. May to mid-October are best for vacations. Although July and August are the warmest months, May and June are the sunniest.

Belgium

Bruges 2 by Wolfgang Staudt Flickr Creative Commons

Festivals and the arts are a prominent part of Belgian life. One of the most famous festivals is the spectacular three-day Carnival of the Gilles in Binche, south of Brussels, held just before the start of Lent. During the event, men known as Gilles dress in giant bright costumes and, in keeping with strange rituals, toss oranges to spectators. Another famous pageant is the Procession of the Holy Blood held in Brugge in May, then the nation celebrates its Independence Day on June 21, when the Belgians indulge themselves in folklore festivals, rhythm n’ blues, and rock concerts. The unusual Flower Festival takes place from the 13th to 15th of August on even years; Brussels’ Grand Place square is carpeted with 700,000 flowers in intricate and beautiful patterns. December 6th is St Nicholas Day, an important children’s holiday.

Netherlands

Amsterdam by Dan Rocha Flickr Creative Commons

Every year in January, the nation turns its attention to the weather to see if the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Race), an intensive 200 kilometers skating marathon through the countryside of Friesland, can take place. The last one was held in 1997 and it can only go ahead if the whole area has iced over. Amsterdam gets even crazier than usual on Queens Day, 30th of April, when the whole of the centre becomes a giant street party and market where anything can be sold and pretty much everything is tolerated. The Netherlands’ oldest town, Nijmegen, is host to the country’s biggest walking festival. The Vierdaagse (four-day march) over 200 kilometers through the surrounding countryside is a major event for serious walkers as well as party animals. The annual event starts on the Tuesday of the third week of July.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg by Wolfgang Staudt

Luxembourg’s character is encapsulated in its national motto: ‘We want to remain what we are’. This might explain why the European Union’s smallest country, with around 440,000 inhabitants, has few internationally recognized natives known outside its borders. That said, it really emerges from its shell on 23rd of June, its National Day. Luxembourgers celebrate it in the same vain as a European New Year’s Eve. After sunset on the evening of 22nd of June, torch lit parades illuminate the city centre. Fireworks are launched from one of the city’s many inspiring bridges, while rock concerts take centre stage in the main squares. The celebrations also mark the official birthday of the Grand Duke and the inauguration of the Summer in the City festival, which runs until September each year. Meanwhile, the unusual Echternach Dancing Procession, held five days after Easter, sees parish people walk to the town’s abbey to bear offerings. It draws so many thousands of visitors that the procession is repeated on Whit Tuesday.

Language

English is spoken widely across all three countries, especially in the capital and major cities.

Netherlands and Belgium

Although English speakers differentiate between the languages spoken by inhabitants of the northern Belgium as Flemish and the Netherlands as Dutch, they are in fact the same language and its correct term is Netherlandic or Nederlands; it’s just the pronunciation that sets them apart. French is spoken across the southern region of Belgium.

Luxembourg

Multilingualism is universal among Luxembourgers and both the German and French languages are used in the press, in politics, and in daily life. French is most common in government and schools, though Lëtzebuergesch (Luxembourgish) is the language you’ll hear most frequently on the street as it’s the oral language of the nation. It’s Germanic in origin (from around the fourth century) but has changed sufficiently to make it unintelligible to German speakers. Although an official written version of the language has been set down in recent decades, it’s not developed and nuanced enough to be sufficient in written texts, so this is when the use of French and German comes in to play.

Food and Drink

Belgium

One of Belgium’s real gifts is food and the country has more Michelin starred restaurants than France. Since its introduction to the country several centuries ago, chocolate was considered a gift in Belgium, especially after the filled Belgian Waffles by Cybjorg Flickr Creative Commonschocolate, praline, was invented in the early twentieth century. In the capital, you will come across restaurants serving mussels, often as moules a volonte (eat as much as you like), while the selection of beers, from the strong Trappist Abbey beers to the thirst quenching Senne Valley breweries, is as expansive as you will feel after your meals. Further south, the cuisine is not dissimilar to traditional French fare, serving meats with rich ingredients and sauces. In the Ardennes area, soups, smoked ham, and pate are the order of the day.

The Netherlands

Traditional Dutch cuisine doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations but it’s certainly hearty. Like the Belgians, the national obsession is for frites (fries), usually sold from a frituur (chip shop). Dinner tends to be thick soups, meat or fish potatoes. Perhaps your best bet is heading to Amsterdam; once something to be sniffed at, New Dutch Cuisine is now an Amsterdam force to be reckoned with. A new generation of chefs have thrown off the Dutch penchant for over-boiling and frying to embrace the rich influences of the Netherlands’ large immigrant communities. They have taken elements from world cuisines and the adoptive national cuisine of Indonesia (its former colony) and fused them with local, often organic, produce to come up with interesting new creations. For cheap food take your pick from the overflow of Surinam, Chinese, or Indonesian snack bars across the city, while meat eaters won’t be disappointed by the amazing portions doled out at the Argentinean grill houses.

Luxembourg

Luxembourg’s cuisine – mainly centering around pork, seafood and game – is made up of similar ingredients to those found in the Dutch influenced Flanders area of Belgium. Local specialties include liver dumplings with spiced pancakes, smoked ham, plum tarts, and sauerkraut – an obvious German influence. The Luxembourg wine is white, usually light, and is best tasted in the Moselle Valley, half an hour from the capital. Here you can sample and buy the regional wines like Elbling, Rivaner, Auxerrois, and Gewürztraminer.

Travel

The national rail companies of Belgium and Luxembourg are an excellent way to travel as well as modern and efficient. The Benelux Tourrail is one such ticket that covers Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands, which allows five days unlimited rail travel during a one-month period throughout Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Driving is a good option outside of the main cities.

Currency

US $1= .74 Euro

GBP £1= 1.19  Euro

Exchange rate at time of writing.

The local currency in all three countries is the Euro.  For up to date currency information, check xe.com. ATM cash machines are commonplace in all cities and towns.

These are towards the more expensive countries to visit in Europe. Budget for at least 40 euros per day for budget travel staying in hostels, and closer to 100 to 150 euros if you want to eat in proper restaurants and stay in a reasonable hotel.

In Belgium be aware that budget hotels are few and far between, but fortunately all prices include taxes, and usually service, so there are no nasty surprises. Not so in Luxembourg where a fifteen percent tax is added on to everything except for hotel, restaurant and camping prices, which are taxed at three percent.

 

Dress

There isn’t any dress code to observe in these laid back countries although you’re especially advised to take wet weather gear with you to the Netherlands in particular with its maritime climate.

Visas

Belgium

Most visitors require a visa to enter Belgium which will be issued upon arrival and those from Western countries will usually be allowed to stay for up to three months. European Union nationals don’t need a visa providing they have a valid passport.

Netherlands

European Union nationals can enter the Netherlands with just a national identity card for three months, while visitors from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States don’t need a visa, just a valid passport for a stay of up to three months.

Luxembourg

European Union nationals can enter with a national identity card or valid passport, although it’s worth noting that entry to nationals from some of the new member states are still required to produce a passport. Many Western countries, including the United States and Japan, are also allowed access with just a valid passport; those from the rest of the world are required to have a visa.

By Kate Griffiths

Belgium & Luxembourg

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